Suicide bombs in Grozny: signs of rebel politics, not unity

Back in July, Chechen rebel websites were proclaiming peace in our time – not so much peace in the North Caucasus (that is as distant as ever) but peace in the internal dispute between standing rebel leader Doku Umarov and a collection of rivals who felt that he had lost his way. At a Sharia court, challengers such as Aslanbek Vadalov and Hussein Gakayev reportedly renounced their schismatic ways and reaffirmed their personal oath of loyalty to Umarov. He hurriedly reorganized the ‘armed forces of the Province of Nokhchicho’, specifically abolishing the former eastern and south-western ‘fronts’ and replacing them with he western and eastern ‘military sectors’ under Amir Khamzat (also the commander of the ‘Riyad-us-Saliheen Martyr Brigade’) and Hussein Gakayev, respectively.

Amity? Well, to an extent. To a large degree, the blame or credit for this reconciliation goes to the Russians. When Saudi-born commander Mukhannad was killed in a counter-insurgency operation in April, the rebel rebels (if you see what I mean?) lost perhaps their most vehement member. It also provided a convenient scapegoat, as he could be blamed – with some, but only some justification – as the prime mover behind the split. In any case, with neither faction able to claim the ascendancy and a growing number of local rebel commanders demanding an end to the split, Umarov, Vadalov and the rest were forced to kiss and make up, with the division of field commands between Gakayev and Khamzat representing a power-sharing deal of sorts.

However, Umarov is well aware that the degree of respect he has amongst the field commanders, never mind his loyal-for-the-moment erstwhile challengers, is distinctly limited. This helps explain, I think, this week’s triple suicide bomb attacks in Grozny this week, on the last day of Ramadan, which killed 9 people including 7 police officers. In military terms, this was a negligible attack – indeed, a ratio of 1:3 casualties actually favors the government forces over the dwindling rebels. In external political terms, it undoubtedly embarrassed Chechen president and strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, but is unlikely to have much lasting significance. If anything, it may buttress his position. Medvedev is increasingly dissatisfied with him, but it was his apparent success at cutting the rebels down the size that, paradoxically, made Kadyrov dispensable: evidence that there is still more dirty work to be done makes Moscow more willing to tolerate him for longer. It also legitimizes his autocratic rule. As he said:

“Every time we start considering softer, more condescending policies toward the rebels, they shed innocent blood in return,” Kadyrov said. “This confirms to me once again that only tough, uncompromising measures can uproot this evil.”

The real significance of the attacks is probably more in terms of internal rebel politics. Umarov desperately needs to appear relevant, viable and effective, and I suspect that, as usual, he turned to perhaps his main ally, Khamzat, the master of the rebels’ dwindling but dangerous supply of willing suicide bombers. Khamzat, who was behind the Domodedovo bombing. By striking in Grozny and allowing Umarov to claim the credit, Khamzat could help try and shore up his patron’s prestige. Such, alas, are the dark calculations of Chechen rebel politics these days.

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